MOVIE REVIEWS

Hell Is a City

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April 10, 1960

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By John Chard January 28, 2017

I don't play cards. I don't even touch coins.

Out of Hammer Films, Hell is a City is directed by Val Guest, who also adapts the screenplay from Maurice Proctor's novel of the same name. It stars Stanley Baker, John Crawford, Billie Whitelaw, Maxine Audley, Donald Pleasence, Vanda Godsell, Joseph Tomelty and George A. Cooper. Music is by Stanley Black and cinematography in HammerScope is by Arthur Grant.

When violent criminal Don Starling (Crawford) escapes from prison, Manchester cop Inspector Harry Martineau (Baker) correctly assumes he is on his way back to the area to collect some hidden loot from a previous job. Sure enough a serious crime rocks the city and all roads lead to Starling, but what price will Martineau pay to nail a man whose mere name strikes fear into the locals?

Has some bastard been passing me snide money?

British crime drama at its best, absorbing as a suspense tale, clinically unflinching in its characterisations and directed with a deft hand by the multi talented Val Guest. Hell is a City is without question a very British movie, but in the same way that greats like Brighton Rock and They made Me A Fugitive were Britannia Rule Grimarannia, so it be here where Guest makes the most of Manchester's gloomy locales to pump bad blood into the edgy narrative. It's a Manchester of creaky terraced houses, working class bars, soiled streets and the unforgiving Moors. The latter of which a visual beauty to the eye, but home of misery both in fact and fiction.

A Starling in the Attic.

Tale unfolds as a sort of warts and all semi-documentary police procedural. Harry Martineau is the lead man, but this is no cliché addled copper, he is a tough bastard who is not adverse to using strong arm and dishonest tactics to get results. He's a hero, of sorts, but the happiness he craves outside of his work, at home, is moving further away from him. He's not alone, either, for many of the vivid characters on show here are either life's losers, illicit gamblers, unfaithful wives, lonely hearts, or cheaters and beaters, and that's before we get to Crawford's villain. Don Starling infects everyone with his evil stink, a robber, a rapist and a murderer, he may not look much physically in Crawford's shoes, but his name, voice and mere appearance has all but Martineau in a cold sweat.

If a man ain't got kids he's still fair game!

The script is devoid of pointless filler and no scene is wasted, there's an air of realism throughout. Sure there's a little leap of faith to be taken at times, but nothing that remotely could hurt the movie. The performances are from the better end of the scale, with Baker excelling as a stoic, but lonely man of the force, and Whitelaw and Godsell impressively force themselves up above the parapet to be rightly noticed in a movie predominantly beefed by machismo. Could Don Starling have been played by a better actor? Yes of course. Or just have been played by someone more menacing in appearance (like Baker in his villain roles for instance)? Again, yes of course. But the more you watch the more you will see that it's a frightening portrayal because it's very human, just like that given to Harry Martineau.

Some scenes shock and distress, others hold you and enthral, Hell is a City is one hell of a film and highly recommended to crime and noir fans. 9/10

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